altEarthen Vessels:  Why Our Bodies Matter to Our Faith by Matthew Lee Anderson (Bethany House, 2011)

It took me much too long to read this book, especially considering I had been looking forward to it.  Because the Incarnation—the taking on of human flesh by God, the creator and sustainer of the universe—Christmas!—is a critical distinctive of Christianity, our human bodies should matter to our faith.  The Church must not dishonor that which God himself honors so highly.  Yet it is all too easy to fall into the common belief that who we "really" are is something unrelated to our physical form.  Thus a particularly Christian look at the body should make an instructive and informative book.

Unfortunately, Anderson does not deliver, at least not for me.    I was expecting a book that would address the Church as a whole, but Earthen Vessels is specifically aimed at a very narrowly-defined Evangelical (uppercase E), American subdivision.  Rather than being a book for all Christians, much too much ink is spent trying to reassure those whom "talking about Lent, Advent, and other seasons makes ... nervous."  For them, there is much of substance in Anderson's work.  But I imagine Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists, mainline Presbyterians, and many others gritting their teeth and saying, "All right, already!  Can we get past Step 1, please?"  This is particularly frustrating because the other major flaw of the book is its attempt to cover too much ground.  Consumerism, sexuality, tattoos, cremation, vampires, the Sabbath, worship, yoga ... it's too much.  Especially for a book of only 231 pages.

On top of it all, I'm always frustrated with writers who assume their readers are conversant with what's shown on television.  "We are a nation of people who want to be vampires like Edward Cullen."  [Anderson does have the courtesy to explain that Edward Cullen is a character on an American TV show called Twilight.]  Excuse me?  Never in my weirdest dreams have I desired to be a vampire.  I know nothing about the "zombie apocalypse" and care less.  My car does not feature "Counting Crows blaring on the radio."  Until I looked it up, I had no idea whether Counting Crows was a music group, a song, or a talk-show host.  Assumptions such as these lead me to wonder if Earthen Vessels has anything at all to say to me:  If his diagnosis is so obviously wrong, why should I trust his prescription?

And why, I wonder, do I find more that speaks to me in books written 50, 100, 500, or 2000 years ago than I do in many of today's writings?

My own dissatisfaction, however, should not condemn the book in the eyes of those who like to count crows, believe in the undead, and/or are made nervous by the mention of Lent.  Anderson's logic is not always clear, let alone faultless, but he has some good ideas and puts many interesting and important points on the table for discussion.

Moreover, one cannot totally fault someone who quotes G. K. Chesterton more than John Piper, and a plethora of sticky notes festoon my book. Here are a few of the passage that struck me one way or another.

The tools we use, the words we hear, the images we see—each of them shapes our inner lives in ways that we do not always understand.

Young men [today] see more images of beautiful women in a single day than an average man might have seen in a lifetime 200 years ago. ...

[Quoting Hollywood publicist Michael Levine] The strange thing is, being bombarded with visions of beautiful women ... doesn't make us think our partners are less physically attractive.  It doesn't change our perception of our partner.  Instead, by some sleight of mind, it distorts our idea of the pool of possibilities.  These images make us think there's a huge field of alternatives.  It changes our estimate of the number of people who are available to us as potential mates.  In changing our sense of the possibilities, it prods us to believe we could always to better, keeping us continually unsatisfied.

The promise of technological mediation is that we can control how our external lives appear to others.  We choose when we want to update our statuses and what we want to say.  We are not present online—we present ourselves.  But in a mediated world, presentation will constantly threaten to overwhelm our bodily presence, invariably pushing the body to the margins.  When humans gather face-to-face, we take emotional (and sometimes physical) risks.  Yet in a mediated world, those risks either go away or are significantly curtailed.

I absolutely agree with Anderson on the importance of personal, physical, bodily presence.  But as one whose friends and family members are spread all over the world, I'm grateful for the technology that allows us to see and hear, if not touch and hold, those far away in body.

The longing for stability and significance isn't unique to younger evangelicals.  It is a distinctly human need.  We internalize the events that happen to us and incorporate them into our understanding of the world around us, organize them into a coherent pattern, and externalize the meaning through speech, poetry, painting, and other forms of cultural creation.  it is how we make sense of ourselves, how we develop our sense of what it means to be a specific person before God.  Yet before the past twenty years, evangelicals would have never thought to express that self-understanding by marking their bodies.  With all the possible options for organizing and expressing our self-understanding, my question is simply, "Why are tattoos now being embraced?" Something has changed that has made them a plausible option.

If there were a sexual arms race, the evangelicals would be winning. ... Evangelical Christianity has undergone in the past three decades what is tantamount to its own sexual revolution ... [maintaining] a profound focus on maximizing pleasure between the sheets—or wherever else we happen to be when inspiration strikes. ... The implicit—and occasionally explicit—argument is that because God designed sex to be kept within marriage, Christians should be having belter and more frequent sex than anyone else.  Or, as two scholars who analyzed evangelical sex manuals in the early 1980's put it, we are apparently "God's chosen people in matters of sexuality." The increasingly common challenges from evangelical pulpits to have daily sex suggests the calling is irrevocable. ...

The loud arguments from evangelicalism that pleasure is good border on defensively shouting, "Hey, we've got pleasure, too!" in a world that cares about little else.  Evangelicals can and should win the pleasure war but not on the same terms as the world.  And judging by our literature and manner of life, we are closer to treating sexual pleasure as an idol than we have ever been to treating is as a curse.

Most evangelical churches are wary of single male pastors (especially young ones).  The belief is that single men are incapable either of controlling themselves sexually, or of counseling married couples on the dynamics of human sexuality.  This basic inhospitality toward single people in church leadership suggests, i suspect, a tacit commitment to standards of sexuality that are taken less from Scripture and more from the world around us. ...

The idea of a vocation—or a calling—to lifelong celibacy for the kingdom of God does not minimize the importance of marriage.  Each calling bears witness to different aspects of our world. ...

The possibility of finding full human flourishing without sex stands in stark contrast to one of the most prevalent notions of sexuality both inside and outside the church:  Thanks in part to Sigmund Freud and Abraham Maslow, sex has been transformed from an expression of our humanity to a physiological or psychological need that is essential to our human flourishing. ...

The teaching that our wholeness depends upon sexual fulfillment lies behind many of the problems in evangelical teaching about sex.  We implicitly convey to young people that sex is a need by marginalizing those who are single or cordoning them off in singles groups so that they hopefully will get married.  Then we expect them to live some of the most sexually charged years of their lives without yielding to temptation.  No wonder young people struggle to stay sexually pure:  either sex is essential to their flourishing as humans or it isn't.  And if everyone who is married thinks it is, then young people will too—regardless of whatever else we tell them.

[T]he objectification of women—or men—in pornography depends upon a prior objectification of our own bodies.  When we turn people into sexual objects so we can have an artificial sense of connection with them, we treat our bodies as machines meant to maximize our experience of pleasure.  It is fundamentally depersonalizing for everyone involved—for the viewer and the viewed.  Wendell Berry writes, "Our 'sexual revolution' is mostly an industrial phenomenon, in which the body is used as an idea of pleasure or a pleasure machine with the aim of 'freeing' natural pleasure from natural consequence."

[L]abeling oneself gay or lesbian treats sexual orientation as a core part of one's identity as human persons.  Unfortunately, this narrative of sexual identity stops any dialogue about the morality of same-sex desires and practices before it can even begin; any disagreement goes against the core of the other person's identity. ... This means that as long as those with same-sex orientations treat the fulfillment of their sexual desires as a necessary part of their identity, the most sensitive traditional responses to same-sex attraction and acts will inevitably be reduced to bigotry.  The possibility of real conversation is over before it begins.

But what of the log in our own eye?  The language of "sexual identity" (rather than attraction or desire) glorifies sexual expression by establishing it as necessary to our humanity. ... [I]t is heterosexuals who first took this step and made sexual expression a "need" on which human flourishing depends. ... [T]he gay and lesbian communities have simply followed our lead, using the language of sexual fulfillment and identity that heterosexuals have been using since at least Freud.

[T]he path to closing [the gap between our lives now and the life to which we are called] may not always seem straight, especially as same-sex relationships become more embedded in the structures of American life.  For instance, what would happen ten or twenty years from now if an atheist lesbian couple and their eight-year-old adopted daughter became Christians and affirmed traditional sexual morality?  Should the home be broken up so the child can have a father?  Should the couple live together as celibates so the child's stability is preserved?  And do the answers change if the child is six—or sixteen?  The questions are but variations on a theme:  How does the gospel pervade cultural institutions that are inhospitable to its presence?  Does Paul's suggestion in 1 Corinthians 7 that each person should "remain in the condition in which they were called" provide a template for a sensitive pastoral response, one akin to that which some missionaries have taken in polygamous cultures?

The danger of turning worship of the living God into theater isn't limited to any denomination.  The evangelical liturgy—welcome, worship, announcements, worship, prayer, giving, reading, sermon, worship—has just as much room for becoming theater as the "highest" liturgical church.

Well, duh.  I would say more so—because traditional liturgical worship doesn't look at all like the "theater" of today, whereas many modern church formats do, with some even being nearly indistinguishable from rock concerts.  And I certainly agree with him on this point:

A practical place to start ... would be to turn down the volume.

Legal Blather Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from Bethany House Publishers. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."
Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, October 25, 2012 at 12:24 pm | Edit
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Interesting quotes. "No wonder young people struggle to stay sexually pure" and on the other side, if they do stay pure they subconsciously expect to have won the pleasure game and get the best sex in marriage. Thatís a tall order for the wedding night and only sets up faithful believers for disappointment and frustration. The purpose for purity to should be to honor God and your future spouse, not to be rewarded with the greatest pleasure. As always when we seek our own satisfaction first we go away hungry.

Posted by IrishOboe on Saturday, October 27, 2012 at 4:30 am

Amen. Christianity Today ran a big article not long ago about how churches (and Christian authors) are setting people up for marriage difficulties by raising sexual expectations so high. But you said it better in one short paragraph.

Being far from the "singles scene"—if they even had such a thing in my day—I had no idea that's what youth groups are preaching. Once again we take our standards from the world. :(

Posted by SursumCorda on Saturday, October 27, 2012 at 5:57 am
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